Exposing the Myths
Hurricane Katrina generated some myths and helped kill others.
Among those generated was a myth specific to Katrina itself—the
storm hit Monday, but the levees gave way Tuesday. In fact, at
least two and perhaps three key sections of the levee system failed
on Monday. But the “they broke Tuesday” myth gave
cover to journalists (and politicians) who missed the scoop in
the Lower Ninth Ward and in parishes east of New Orleans proper.
There is no doubt that problems worsened Tuesday, helping to dispel
at least one myth about storms and floods. We are often led to
believe that the risk of catastrophic flooding is highest during
a major storm event itself. In fact, peak discharge often occurs
after the main storm event as overland flow and subsurface drainage
makes its way to already-swollen streams and rivers. We should
have learned this lesson during the disastrous Ohio River Valley
flood of 1997. Immediately after the rain ceased, homeowners in
the flood plain breathed sighs of premature relief with not a
drop of floodwater in sight. That changed dramatically over the
next 48 hours. The ’97 flood took 67 lives and caused over
$1 billion in damage.
Katrina exposed, under the harshest light, another popular
myth—that FEMA is something akin to the cavalry. We are
led to believe by FEMA’s own public relations efforts that
the agency is a giant stable of first responders—action
figures in neon orange life vests, blankets perched on one shoulder,
bottled water on the other, waiting like sprinters in the blocks.
FEMA officials are not first responders, nor are they deployable
in large numbers, nor are they resource-rich. They help coordinate
disaster assistance and their success is absolutely dependent
on the technical and organizational wherewithal of genuine state
and local emergency managers and first responders. Most FEMA officials
are insurance claims specialists. They prepare and file paperwork
for property loss claims and subsidize emergency services. This
is a far cry from the can-do FEMA of the first responder myth—but
then again, even the FEMA-of-myth would have had its hands full
Matt Auer is a professor at SPEA, IUB. His research
focuses on comparative industrial environmental politics, international
forest policy, and the politics of foreign aid. He received his
Ph.D. from Yale University in 1996.